Tag Archives: emotions

10 Heartbreaking Simpsons Moments

[This list is being crossposted on the terrific Simpsons-centric blog Dead Homer Society. Go check them out!]


“Don’t cry for me; I’m already dead.” – Barney

Back in June, I composed a list of “10 Scary Simpsons Moments.” This is a companion piece of sorts, demonstrating the show’s emotional breadth with ten of the sweetest, tenderest, and most touching moments of the show’s run. Although renowned for its cynicism and satire, The Simpsons always had powerful, James L. Brooks-influenced emotion at its core. It was never just about hollow laughs; instead, each episode was invested in relationships, families, and the oft-painful quirks of human behavior.

But it also never took the typical sitcom shortcut of cheap schmaltz: its emotional arcs were steeped in character development and real-life resonances. The Simpsons, at its best, was about well-rounded human beings with foibles, feelings, and heartbreaks. Here are ten tear-jerking, heartstring-tugging examples…

10) “Dog of Death”

This episode has a twofer: its first act confronts the agonizing facts of pet mortality (and middle-class penny-pinching), while the rest is devoted to Bart searching for the lost, brainwashed Santa’s Little Helper. It climaxes with a montage celebrating pet/child rapports and the merciful restoration of the status quo, reaffirming the lesson of Old Yeller and all those Lassie movies: few emotional forces are more potent than the relationship between a boy and his dog.

9) “Lisa on Ice”

Bart and Lisa’s sibling rivalry was a staple of the show’s B-plots, but no other episode exploited their love/hate relationship as skillfully as “Lisa on Ice.” Most of the episode teeters toward the “hate” end of that dynamic, but as with “Dog of Death,” all that conflict leads to a hug-it-out climax and an adorable montage of Bart and Lisa’s shared childhood. This being The Simpsons, though, their heartfelt reconciliation plays out with a hockey riot raging in the background.

8) “I Married Marge”

The flashback episodes are gold mines of masterfully orchestrated sentiment. “And Maggie Makes Three,” with its “DO IT FOR HER” ending, nearly made this list, as did “The Way We Was” for Homer’s closing monologue. But “I Married Marge” has Homer and Marge’s tragic separation as newlyweds when Homer goes off to become a man, and their reunion in the Gulp ‘n’ Blow drive-thru with the words “Pour vous.” It’s a note-perfect, bittersweet back story for Our Favorite Family.

7) ” ‘Round Springfield”

Poor Lisa, condemned to lose every positive male role model (see #2). The loss of Bleeding Gums Murphy really hurts; he’s such a gently paternal presence, and he’s Lisa’s only mentor as a jazz saxophonist. (Mr. Largo, his passion dulled by years in the public school system, could never come close.) Unlike a certain gimmicky, ratings-grabbing death from Season 11, Murphy’s passing is handled with tact and humor, making it all the more painful.

6) “Bart Sells His Soul”

This episode topped my “scary” list, and the same spiritual fears that feed its horror also make it an emotionally heavy experience. Bart’s prayer at the end is a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright; she cuts right through his “underachiever and proud of it” schtick, revealing the lost little boy underneath. “Bart Sells His Soul” delves into the anxiety and loneliness that constitute dark side of childhood, and the redemption that lies just beyond.

5) “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”

After a diabolically brilliant first act that degenerates into a nightmare, “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” tests the Simpson family’s mettle like no episode before or since. But the intensity of their trial by social services fire makes the resolution that much more gratifying (and emotionally overwhelming), and Marge’s climactic line can still bring tears to my eyes: “Oh, Maggie, you’re a Simpson again!”

4) “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”

When Homer ingests some potentially deadly sushi, he gets put through the existential wringer: as Dr. Hibbert informs him, he only has 22 hours to wrap up his life on earth. His attempts to do so are tragicomic, as he earnestly carries out some tasks while botching others; however, the episode goes all-out emotionally for Homer’s last night. Sitting awake in the living room, he’s no longer a wacky TV dad. He’s just a working stiff, staring into the abyss. Powerful stuff.

3) “Like Father, Like Clown”

You’d think that estranged parents and Jewish culture, thorny topics for any show, would prove impossible for an animated sitcom. But leave it to The Simpsons to entangle the two in its hilarious, heartfelt riff on The Jazz Singer. The ending is utterly moving, as Krusty and his father join in singing “O Mein Papa”—just the kind of big, emotional finale you’d expect from a larger-than-life showbiz figure like Krusty.

2) “Lisa’s Substitute”

“You are Lisa Simpson.” Such a simple sentence, but it rings so true. Coupled with Dustin Hoffman’s understated performance as Mr. Bergstrom, it’s enough to put a lump in my throat every time I watch the phenomenal “Lisa’s Substitute.” A touchstone for brainy kids everywhere, the episode makes the tragic acknowledgment that loss is part of personal growth, but no easier for it. We’ll miss you, Mr. Bergstrom.

1) “Mother Simpson”

The other episodes on this list tell some pretty heartrending stories about loss and reconciliation, but nothing can match the emotional scope, gravity, and finesse of “Mother Simpson.” Homer’s long-lost mother may disappear again, but he learns that she loves him, and that’s enough. The ending, with Homer pensively stargazing, is both a model of restraint and a signal to start crying. It’s a sobering reminder of how powerful silence can be.

2 Comments

Filed under Media

My Favorite Movies: The Saddest Music in the World

Beer, music, and the interplay of emotions

So, I haven’t done one of these posts in a while what with starting classes and all, but here’s a movie that demands to be written about: Guy Maddin’s quasi-musical comedy melodrama The Saddest Music in the World (2003, watchable here). Maddin, whom I saw giving a live director’s commentary this past June at the Heights Theater, is one of my favorite still-working directors; hailing from Winnipeg, he’s as much of an international envoy for Canadian cinema as David Cronenberg, and about as blatantly weird. But instead of expressing sexual hang-ups and Freudian confusion through gory physical displays like Cronenberg does, Maddin’s neuroses manifest themselves in explosive tributes to Hollywood films of the 1920s-’30s, full of absurdly overemotional characters and editing that could best be described as hysterical.

And out of Maddin’s films (though I have yet to see Careful or My Winnipeg), I’d say that Saddest Music hits all the right notes, emotionally and musically, bringing his style into a precise balance with the subject matter. It’s not quite as amnesiacally muddled as Archangel, and it expands impressively on the psychosexually tangled love triangles of earlier films like Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Fantastically entertaining, visually unique, and very strange – this could be Maddin’s masterpiece, lying deep in his fictionalized historical Winnipeg and yet relatively accessible to mainstream audiences (at least more so than, say, his silent ballet version of Dracula). So, where to start discussing it?

The plot of Saddest Music is fittingly complicated, with baroque psychological twists crawling out of the floorboards. It tells of a very dysfunctional family, the Kents: patriotically Canadian father Fyodor, sociopathic American showman Chester, and the melancholic hypochondriac Roderick, who’s taken on the Serbian national identity after the death of his child and the disappearance of his wife. The story’s background is that of the Great Depression, when legless beer baroness (the three words that really sell the movie) Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) is holding a contest to find the titular saddest music, pitting the Siamese against the Mexicans, the Germans against the Poles, and so on. It’s a concept from an old screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day) that found itself somehow in Maddin’s hands. Processed through his feverishly inventive mind, it becomes a perverse catalog of classical Hollywood cliches lovingly made ironic by Maddin and his writing collaborator George Toles.

Lady Port-Huntley's legs: a Chaney-esque allegory of disability

Amidst the Kents’ emotional chaos is the film’s wild card character, Narcissa, played by Portuguese beauty Maria de Medeiros (of Pulp Fiction fame, though Maddin knew her from Henry & June). Roderick’s amnesiac wife and now Chester’s “kept woman,” she wanders hazily through the film speaking of attractive ears, telepathic tapeworms, and claiming to be not an American, but a nymphomaniac. She also triggers Roderick’s hysterical hypersensitivity, which points out one of the ways I view the film – as a battle royale between contrasting emotional viewpoints. I don’t think Maddin intended the film to be any grand statement about the wide palette of emotions, although I do believe he knew he was making a family melodrama that went over the top and back again. But, while last viewing the film, I found a way to reconcile this emotion-based vision of the film with its apparent lack of seriousness: by comparison with Amanda Palmer’s also highly ironic song “Oasis,” discussed many times on this very same blog. Just as Amanda Palmer has described “Oasis” as showing an alternative way to cope with trauma, Saddest Music‘s feuding central characters can represent happiness and sadness, glass half full or half empty. (As Chester says, “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass.”)

So in Chester we have the embodiment of perpetual positivity, the quintessential Ugly American with a can-do, go-go spirit of rugged individualism. He manages to co-opt the other performers’ cultures, but only by offering to pay their way home. Chester – incidentally, named for and partially based on the character played by James Cagney in Footlight Parade (1933) – begins and ends the film by denying the sadness that’s filled his life, from his mother’s premature death to his own. “I ask you,” he says, always with a Cohan-esque lilt to his voice, “is there anybody here as happy as I am?” I don’t think it’d be too extreme to compare Chester to Amanda’s blithe protagonist in “Oasis.”

But turn Chester on his ass, and you’ve got Roderick, aka Gavrilo the Great, who proclaims, “In the jar, preserved in my own tears, is my son’s heart.” Whereas Chester appears impervious to emotional pain, Roderick’s life is nothing but. His behavior in the movie consists of one breakdown after another, puncuated by frantic pleas not to trouble his overly acute senses of touch, hearing, and smell. Roderick is the psychological hiccups and excessive reactions of melodrama incarnate in a character and played splendidly by Ross McMillan with a plaintive accent to match. So, as the title indicates, the film is largely on some level about emotions: Roderick fighting (but failing) to assert his genuine tearfulness against Chester’s “razzle dazzle showmanship” pretending to be sadness.

The hysterical Roderick, unable to cope with his sensory input or the trauma of betrayal

And always present alongside the characters’ escalating (and comedic) emotional intensity is Maddin’s far-flung visual style, which incorporates anything and everything to evoke the director’s madly oneiric vision of 1930s film. We have thick film grain, a coloring technique resembling two-strip Technicolor (used mostly for funeral scenes), nonstop rear projection, and manic montage for the film’s climax. Maddin is in love with the fakery and illusions of the cinema, and this love propels his film into violent visual and narrative fragmentation. The Kents’ house, as well as downtown Winnipeg, is constructed with claustrophobically expressionistic architecture, and the entire film was shot in a giant, freezing Winnipeg warehouse. You could go so far as to call it anti-location shooting.

This is one of Maddin’s bizarre triumphs, his view of the unconscious mind in relation to perceiving cinema. I think he referred to his brilliant short film The Heart of the World as the world’s first “subliminal” film, and on some level this applies to much of his other work as well. Realism is set aside, because old movies aren’t perceived as reality, and there’s nothing realistic – from a narrative or emotional angle – about the contortions and exaggerations of melodrama. In Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), the character of Guy Maddin is said to suffer from “brain fever,” and this is akin to the sensibility that informs all of the director’s work: the human brain is consumed with fever, every impulse or emotion heightened, every reaction doubled, every moment of the plot fractured via editing.

As he’s divulged in various interviews, Guy Maddin’s life has been fairly traumatic – a brother committed suicide, his father died young – and it’s definitely plausible to see his films as, in some ways, melodramatically dealing with the real pains of life. At the same time, he’s creating these insane but beautiful vistas of unreal cinematic worlds, retooling the materials of the past and our collective fictional memories, accelerating recollections of Cagney and Kirk Douglas, of Chaney/Browning collaborations, of Eisenstein and von Stroheim, Busby Berkeley, Astaire & Rogers. And all of this comes to dreamlike fruition in The Saddest Music in the World, where emotions and sexuality run like wild horses through a labyrinth of madness and memory. As usual, I want to highlight one particular scene that stands out, here being the fullest realization of the film’s musical side. It’s the part where Narcissa sings “The Song Is You,” an actual pop standard written in 1932 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. From Chester’s opening reminiscences, the song permeates the film’s atmosphere, whether on cello, piano, or played by a flashy big band as it is here. Maddin attributed this scene’s inspiration to Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (also 1932), where Maurice Chevalier’s singing of “Isn’t It Romantic?” turns out to be contagious.

Few films are able to engage the past so sincerely and with such frenzied passion as The Saddest Music in the World. It’s by turns dazzling, perverse, ironically tragic, very funny, and always mesmerizingly melodramatic. Whether you’re new to the chilly, phantasmagoric world of Guy Maddin or if you’ve seen a number of his films, it’s always worth rewatching, for Isabella’s dancing with glass legs, for the kneeling performance of “Red Maple Leaves,” for the surreal behavior of Winnipeg citizens in an age long forgotten, if it ever existed at all. With its spectacular blend of excessive emotion, hysterical past, and life uninhabited – all with plenty of musical fizz – The Saddest Music in the World is on of my favorite movies.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Music

Asserting freedom in the face of bullshit

Fucking bullshit.

I feel like there are many lifestyles being practiced in this country at this time that will soon be outmoded and abandoned. I say this from the vantage point of west suburban Minnesota. Sitting in a library. Hearing people converse loudly.

Fuck it all.

The Rules of the Game (1939)

I was thinking about Jean Renoir – one of the greatest of directors – and how his work seems to focus on social interactions and relationships. Whether class barriers, romance, families, the individual’s place in society, always focusing on the ties between people. It’s a thought. Renoir, as shown by his performance as Octave in Rules of the Game, was a large and boisterous fellow. His films have a joie de vivre; they see value in forging ahead and trying to make it past all the upheavals and turmoil happening in the world. In the end, happiness can be achieved, like the formation of a family unit amidst the greatest difficulty at the end of The Grand Illusion, or the cyclical return present in the imagery of The River. I like how his films embrace life and enjoy themselves and their own beauty. I started watching The Southerner this morning, and that’s what started this trail of thought.

Futility. That was the title of the Morgan Robertson novel that presaged, in great detail, the sinking of the Titanic by 14 years. I know very little about the book but the title seems to suggest that building a transportatinal behemoth like that is futile, because it’s all going to be destroyed anyway. And the sun will eventually blossom into a red giant and burn away all the oceans of the world so no ships can travel, leaving behind a big salty desert covering this warm little chunk of dirt and moisture we call earth. Here we are, tossed back and forth in a neverending clash of happy and sad, purpose and pointlessness, struggling to build something from who we are and what we do, only to have it crumble like a sand castle at high tide. Here I exist as one person among many, wandering sleepily in the June sun, with ideas and traditions built from centuries of human life tumbling around in my head.

Last night I read a depressingly accurate article in the Onion. Maybe I should start reading news that doesn’t satirize the bleak emptiness of my life and the lives of everyone around me. Or maybe this can somehow spur me to action. We do fucking spend our lives in front of boxes and it’s depressing. But, well, is it so wrong if said box is showing me a Jean Renoir movie which I can then analyze in the context of my field of study (film history) and life in general? Movies are there for us to learn from, after all. But nonetheless… these are depressing truths. That a vacant glow from state-of-the-art machinery can occupy so much of our visual attention. I want to escape. I also think I want to become an anti-corporate activist. Idealistic or not, I feel like this big category I call “corporate bullshit” is the cause behind so many problems for just about everyone. Something is rotten as fuck in the state of Denmark, as Shakespeare would say. Hail back to the days of the muckrakers – Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and so on – exposing late 19th century corporations for what they were: faceless, soulless aggregations of wealth and power, both economic and political, dancing like puppets under the control of a few greedy fuckers. Greed like this, and our susceptibility to it and everything that follows, can be blamed for the pollution of our minds, souls, and planet; I just want to stop consuming and stop buying. I want to drop the fuck out of the system altogether.

Motherfuckers.

I guess I’m just really fucking bored with whatever this framework has to offer. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to escape. It’s like a question of whether you’re going to be a Morlock or an Eloi – nonparticipation is not an option. Wherever you live, you’re under somebody’s domain, and it’s perfectly likely there’s a McDonalds within driving distance. And cars, too. Goddamn cars, another object of my ire. And why, you may ask, is it McDonalds, Disney, Wal-Mart, etc. that are being perpetually complained about as the primary corporate transgressors, well: these are some of the most obvious, unavoidable, advertising-heavy corporations throwing their cheap shit out there (often in collaboration) and goading you, the consumer, to pay for it. They’re enormous octopi wedging their fat tentacles into every niche the world has to offer. Well, fuck them. And of course that’s just empty talk, because what can I do? On my own, not a whole hell of a lot. Maybe I’ll reach out and try to find local anti-corporate organizations someday.

In any case, I’m sick of all the bullshit of the world. I want to discover and embrace real, genuine, meaningful, passionate art, not just manufactured shit churned out by an unfeeling system. God, how many times am I going to voice this desire via this blog? I need to get my stream of consciousness, well, a little concentrated. On something. Only I don’t know what. I need to find a different lifestyle to lead. Next year I’m staying at college over the summer, dammit. Any Ivory Tower is preferable to this valley of ashes.

Valerie Solanas (1936-1988)

One person I just keep returning to in my mind over and over is Valerie Solanas, the woman who founded SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men) and shot Andy Warhol in 1968. I guess she’s just one of those people who’s too weird, unusual, and interesting for me not to fixate on. And she wrote a manifesto. As I was discussing the other day, she wasn’t enslav’d by another Man’s system, she did not Reason & Compare. Her business was to Create, dammit. Most of my knowledge about Solanas comes from Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, although I know biopics are always loosely based and fuck around with what actually happened. Nonetheless, from what I’ve read, the movie seems to have captured the general spirit of Solanas’s life, if not its letter. The point is that she was an extremist. She did not Reason, Compare, or fuck around: she took action. Maybe shooting Warhol didn’t further her goals at all. Maybe it really hurt Warhol, a great artist in his own right (though that doesn’t worsen her crime or anything; people can be killed painfully and horribly, artists or not). I grant this and as I’ve said, I don’t condone or encourage violence. Violence sucks. Fuck violence; I’m a quasi-pacifist. But that doesn’t limit my fascination with Solanas. She studied psychology in Maryland, worked frequently as a prostitute, got involved in the Warhol Factory. She supported forming an all-female society. Now naturally I don’t endorse her version of radical misandry as a practical solution to the world’s problems, but it’s something, it’s an idea, and it’s uncompromising. Solanas’s whole manifesto can be read here; I have yet to read it in its entirety myself, but plan to in the near future. I think manifestos are good. Laying out what exactly you plan to accomplish and what course you’ll to take in order to accomplish it. And Solanas is such a great mix of attributes and values – a rebel in terms of politics, gender ideology, class, a historical figure, an artist herself (author of the willfully obscene play Up Your Ass). Would she be pissed off to see some white male student living 20+ years after her death gazing wistfully at her historical visage, puzzling over her actions and ideas? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Finally: one topic I find my main perpetually returning to, which I will probably continue to discuss in the future: neurochemicals. All the molecules and compounds and chains of whatever flitting around your brain, from gland to organ through the blood stream, being produced endlessly to trigger the various parts of your brain to act this way or that. One reason I’m glad I’ve taken so many intro psychology courses is that they taught me a little bit about neurochemicals. All those neurotransmitters – dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, adrenaline, melatonin, good old acetylcholine – modifying the signals fired off from one neuron to the next, subtly altering your mood, attitudes, behavior, thoughts, anything. And all of this is happening inside you, all the time, and when it goes wrong… well, OK, when you break an arm or leg, when your liver or kidney stops working, it sucks and it’s your body backfiring, but there’s always something you can do about it, right? And it’s just a part of your body. You can live with 1 arm or 1 kidney.

But your brain? That’s where you are localized. The you you call you, your self and identity, your consciousness and subjectivity, however you conceive of it, whatever your theory of the mind’s processes are, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s all inside your brain, cradled in your skull, working away and with a whole body around to carry and protect it. That’s some fucking important hardware between all those synapses and neural connections. It basically is who you are, what you think, and what you do. And so, neurochemicals: they make you sad, and glad, and bad. They make you desire, whether for food or drugs or orgasms or TV or video games or gambling. It’s all a matter of some chemicals transferring from one cell to another in your brain. That’s all pleasure is, after all. Some happy little chemicals get moved around and voilà, you’re happy. Pain works the same way. So when the system gets fucked up in one way or another? Well, that’s when some serious problems can start. Which can make you have sensory perceptions out of nowhere, or feel emotions for no bloody reason. This really is just right out of Psych 110; it’s nothing that groundbreaking. But I find it plays a big role in informing my thinking about emotions and behavior. Many, many times I’ve cried, “Goddamn neurochemistry!” It’s not like you can blame it for just anything. But nonetheless, being at the mercy of some malfunctioning brain chemicals is painful, depriving you of control over your own life, and also a basic part of most lives being lived on this planet.

And here we are. Under the heel of a million different frustrating, oppressive forces, with the freedom sucked out of us like marrow from our bones. And we just have to make the best of it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Media, Personal, Politics, Sexuality